When Christ was first seen
The manifestation of the Lord, or the Feast of Lights, has been celebrated in East and West since at least the fourth century A.D. and probably before; in fact, it predates Christmas itself. Before the Second Vatican Council, the Roman liturgy gave it and Pentecost a "privileged Octave of the Second Class", thus prolonging the feast for eight days, while Christmas, a comparative latecomer, had one of the Third Class. Easter, as the Solemnity of Solemnities, naturally had a First Class Octave, which meant that no other feast could be celebrated during that week, as is the case even today.
Thus this Feast of Epiphany originally commemorated both the Nativity of the Lord, his appearing to the world for the first time, and the beginning of his saving work. In the present Roman calendar only two octaves remain, those of Christmas and Easter, while Pentecost has a sort of reversed octave in the days of preparation after Ascension, and Epiphany, while having no octave as such, is followed by a series of days that lead up to the Baptism of the Lord.
Because it is so ancient, Epiphany has come to be surrounded with a plethora of liturgical and folkloric customs throughout the world. The West tends to emphasize the coming of the Wise Men, or Magi, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. In countries like France, the Fête des Rois [Feast of the Kings] is often celebrated by the making of a cake in which a coin, a bean or even a small china baby Jesus is placed, to be discovered by one of the children in the family, who is then the "king" of the day. This emphasis on the Magi, especially in the northern countries like Germany, arose perhaps from the thought that the northern races were the "Gentiles", the people grafted onto the olive tree of the faith (to use St Paul's words) whom the Magi in some sense represented.
The Eastern Church tends to emphasise Light, Water and Wine: the wine of the Marriage Feast at Cana (the first manifestation of Jesus by way of a miracle), the sanctification of all water by the physical presence of Jesus in the river Jordan at his Baptism. In some countries of the East, a cross is thrown into the river, or the sea, and is then "rescued" by young swimmers. Water, the indispensable substance for human vitality, thus becomes a symbol of human life in its entirety, adopted by Jesus Christ in his Incarnation, and purified from all sin by his passion, death and Resurrection. This shows how all the mysteries of our faith are interconnected. It also shows that no human experience is alien to Our Lord. Our Anglican brethren tend to celebrate a service of songs and readings that starts in the sanctuary and ends at the West Door, (the opposite of the Advent Carol Service) to show that the good news is something that must spread out from the Church to the world.
One of the most marvellous Antiphons in the Roman liturgy, Tribus miraculis, the Magnificat Antiphon for the Second Vespers of the feast, unites East and West:
We honour a holy day decorated with three miracles:
Today, a star led the Magi to the manger;
Today, wine was made from water at the Wedding Feast [of Cana];
Today, in the Jordan, and by John, Christ wanted to be baptised,
so that he might save us, alleluia.
The Roman Liturgy celebrates the Baptism of the Lord on the Sunday following Epiphany, thus teasing out the fuller meaning of this all-embracing feast, while the Gospel of the Marriage Feast at Cana can be read on the Sunday after that, depending on the three-year liturgical cycle.
These three focal points — the Light of a Star, the joy of drinking wine and of marriage, and the sanctification of water in which Jesus accepts his vocation as Messiah and Saviour and washes away our sins —are three essential areas of human witness. Our faith is both heavenly and earthly, it purifies us, but it also invites us to accept in fullness what God asks of us; and this is the implication of our own Baptism. And all of these things are holy, because all are sanctified by God, who manifests himself in our midst.
*Monk of Prinknash Abbey, Gloucester, England, currently Procurator General of the Subiaco Benedictine Congregation, Rome